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5.51 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord on providing us with this opportunity of debating disability and on his speech setting the scene and outlining some of the problems. Of course I disagree profoundly with the noble Lord on the issue of civil rights, because I feel strongly about that and about the need for civil rights and calling them civil rights. But I respect the noble Lord's viewpoint and I wish to pay tribute to the splendid work he has done over many years, both in this House and in another place, in helping disabled people. As he spoke of the background to this matter, I also am delighted to see one of the great campaigners on disability in the past and now, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who did so much about the Act to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred.

I welcome this debate on the eve of what will be unprecedented legislation to outlaw discrimination against disabled people. The Government are fully aware of the views of the all-party disablement group, of which I am co-chairman. The group believes that three essential changes are required in the Government's consultative document proposals to make the forthcoming Bill satisfactory. First, a disability rights commission is crucial to monitor, to investigate and above all to enforce the Bill's provisions. Secondly, the proposal to exclude from the Bill's protection disabled people working in businesses of fewer than 20 employees is totally unacceptable. Thirdly, a new definition is required because the one in the consultative document is too restrictive and unfair.

The first two points as regards the commission and people being excluded from protection because of the size of the business have been fully dealt with at great length both here and in another place and I do not propose to speak on those now. Tonight I want to focus on the key issue of definition. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, properly focused on that. Everyone, of course, recognises the problems of wheelchair users. I am especially glad to see the noble

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Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, in the Chamber, willing and able to speak on this important subject. I pay tribute to the wonderful work she has done.

Wheelchairs are, of course, visible and easily identifiable. Wheelchair users deserve great credit for campaigning so ardently and so successfully. However, there are other disabilities such as epilepsy and deafness which are invisible, misunderstood and therefore neglected. Naturally there can be obvious consequences of a medical condition. For example, some deaf people inevitably require the help of interpreters to overcome communication problems. But the social consequences, especially the stigmatising of some disabilities, can be equally or more serious. I believe that this stigma is an aspect which should be acknowledged if anti-discrimination legislation is to be effective.

Disabilities such as deafness, epilepsy and speech defects tend to provoke a reaction because they make people feel uncomfortable—with some disabilities people are perfectly happy, but others make them feel embarrassed—and they are not as easily handled as pushing a wheelchair. They cause embarrassment which is transmuted into discrimination. The same attitudes and the same kinds of discrimination prevail towards people suffering from disabilities which are visible but which also cause embarrassment to an undiscerning public, cerebral palsy for example. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will deal with those disabilities in some detail. Cerebral palsy can easily be recognised but by its nature, distorting the physical frame and its movement, can disguise the qualities, especially the intellectual ones, of the people concerned.

Perverse as it may seem at first sight, people can suffer discrimination even though they have no disability. That is a striking comment but I believe it to be true. In those cases the disability is in the minds of others who falsely perceive a disability where none exists. People who are HIV positive—I am delighted to see present the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who has done so much for those people—former cancer patients and those who have recovered from mental illness face discrimination because people believe them to be disabled.

I hope that Ministers will recognise these sad realities, avoid the easy options and include those suffering discrimination because of perceived disability. A comprehensive and wide-ranging definition of disability would rescue people from the wilderness of distress and even despair. To fail to do this would be an abdication of responsibility and a morally wrong evasion. Stigma cannot be abolished by legislation but it can be tackled and dealt with effectively if the political will is there. I am sure it is with some Ministers and I hope that those who are converted will convert the whole of the Government when this famous Bill is brought forward.

The question of definition of disability is therefore not one of theoretical abstraction but one of profound importance to millions of people. That is why I have tried to deal with it. It is crucial that this problem of definition should be recognised by the Government.

It is certainly recognised by some responsible voluntary societies, such as the Law Society, which favours the inclusion of "reputed or perceived

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disability". The Law Society suggests that it is perhaps worse to be excluded from opportunities because of something which does not exist than because of something which does. That is debatable, but it is ironic to suffer lost opportunities if there is no disability. Surely, the Law Society says, it is not suggested that such people should be excluded from protection. Well, yes, that is what is suggested by the Government. In their consultative document they suggest precisely that, because they confine the definition to those people with a substantial and long-term disability or one with such effects. Therefore, the Law Society ought to have its own word with the Government.

If consultation by the Government has been meaningful rather than a public relations exercise—and I am sure that it was intended by the Ministers concerned to be meaningful—then perhaps Ministers will change their minds on this crucial problem of definition.

The Law Society makes a further important point to which I should like to draw the attention of the House. It suggests that, although the goal of:

    "straightforward and easy to understand legislation",

is welcome, there should not be a higher standard in this field than in others if the reason is to limit protection. That is precisely the reason, and that is why we want the definition changed. If the principle of full inclusion is accepted, it should be possible for the Government to clarify it through regulation and a code of practice.

I want to conclude by suggesting that the crucial issue is the principle that discrimination encountered by disabled people is not the result of their medical condition but of social circumstances. Only when that principle is recognised shall we effectively counter discrimination.

6.2 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I am very glad that this debate is taking place and am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for the marvellous survey in his opening speech of the diversity of disability and disablement. That is the ground on which we have to work. We must recognise that there is an immense diversity. Nothing less than recognition of that fact will do.

I should also like to pay tribute to the enormous contribution which the noble Lord has made personally to the raising of awareness of the needs of people with disablement in this country. That came out in his speech, without his intending it.

Not only is there great diversity of disablement but there is an enormous diversity of voluntary and charitable organisations seeking to help those with disabilities. The number is so large and the field is becoming so competitive that I feel that any government must look at the need for core funding for those bodies. The charitable fund-raising field—as I know because I am chairman of the Children's Society—is almost ludicrously competitive. We organised the first sponsored walk through the Channel Tunnel, raising £2 million for charity—nearly £1 million for ourselves and £1 million for the other organisations which took part.

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What do we do next year—have a sponsored ride to the Moon? There is great difficulty in this field. Has not the Imperial Cancer Relief Fund had to reduce its budget by £6 million this very year? There is a real problem which must be addressed.

In our own county and my diocese of Worcester, only last week I was able to invite to my house a large cross-section of purchasers of services. The whole system of provision is very complex. I offer this as a suggestion to others. We want to set up a funding forum so that whether or not voluntary societies obtain funds is not such a hit and miss affair. There are large charitable organisations with a great deal of clout and professional staff, but there are smaller ones. I think of Crossroads in the Worcester diocese which provides time out for people who have a handicapped person in their house. That is something which they need. The funding forum would exist to ensure that smaller charitable organisations may find a path to the provision of funds and so that purchasers of the services which voluntary organisations offer may have an overall plan and there is a fair distribution of funds.

I welcome the consultation on government measures to tackle discrimination against disabled people. However, we could do with a clear, global statement of commitment to the rights of those with disabilities. I am grateful that Her Majesty's Government have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I believe that we need something similar in any legislation for those with disabilities. It is not good enough merely to say that we are a caring society. Care has to be organised. I hope that there will be a clear statement in any proposals which come forward in 1995.

There is a disparity in the response to benefit claims from area to area and from local authority to local authority. Could there be some unifying guidelines so that people are treated the same all over the country? It is true that those with disabilities or those families who have to care for people with disabilities face far greater expenses. I think of someone in the depths of the Teme valley in my county who suffers from a tendency to fits. The condition is under control, but that person may not drive. Therefore, living in that rural area she is unable to go out unless she hires a taxi or gets a lift from a neighbour.

There are sometimes difficulties over personal insurance. That issue ought to be addressed.

Furthermore, in the consultation to which I have referred there is no mention of education. I heard the other day of a disabled student who had to be put in a little box room to study on her own. The teacher had to come every so often to see how she was getting on. That student very much wanted to be with the others, to be treated as one of the others and to be educated along with them.

There is the question as to whether there should be a quota system in industry. I know that the suggestion has been put forward many times, but it is problematical in that some people with disabilities do not favour it. A quota has never been enforced. Those people do not favour the enforcement of a quota system because they feel that it sets them apart in a way that they do not want to be set apart. However, we need to address the

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question of how to ensure that disabled people have equal access to jobs, to the fullest life of which they are capable—a participatory life in our society and in industry, commerce and the professions—and are able to live as far as they can to the height of their powers. I hope that that matter will be addressed. There is no simple answer.

With regard to the convenience of our buildings, streets and transport, and access to them, there is still an enormous amount to be done in raising awareness. A great deal was done in the International Year of the Handicapped. But people grow weary of well doing. Do we need a disability commission which will keep those matters ever before us? Certainly I believe that we should strengthen the advisory body which the Government propose and give it some teeth. However, in the first and last resort, it is a matter of educating people, of improving attitudes.

One cannot make a nation good, as is well known, by Act of Parliament. I do not believe that we can make our society one which cares in a practical and organised way for people with disabilities merely by legislation, although detailed legislation is needed. He who would serve mankind must do so in minute particulars. But I believe that the measure of the civilised standards of a nation is to be found in the way in which it treats its citizens who have disabilities. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, pointed out, that requires persistent research. There is in people with disabilities a treasure to be unlocked if we only will unlock it. Perhaps it is right for a Lord Bishop to say that it is the basis of a Christian view of life that all should be affirmed, all should be enabled to live to the height of their powers, and all should be so far as possible both independent and interdependent.

I am glad to have this opportunity of taking part in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy.

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